Colonisation of Reunion Island

An ethnically diverse and harmonious island
Enfants de l'ile de La Reunion

Descendants of white colonists, African or Madagascan slaves, Indian travellers, the Chinese, Indian Muslims: the island is a land of immigrants with the diverse appearance of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, which rises to the challenge of having various communities and religions live peacefully alongside one another, within a limited area. Reunion Island really lives up to its name !

Uninhabited until the mid-17th century, although known of by Arab (who referred to the island as Dina Morghabine), Portuguese, English and Dutch sailors who would stop over to take on provisions of food and water, Reunion Island was initially just one of the islands of the Mascarene Archipelago (along with the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues), named after the Portuguese sailor Pedro de Mascarenhas. It was in 1642 that the French landed there to claim possession in the name of the King: the island then assumed the name of Bourbon Island, in honour of the ruling dynasty in France. The first inhabitants were to be white settlers from Madagascar, accompanied by a number of servants, including Madagascan women. In 1665 the first official colonists of Bourbon Island arrived from mainland France. From 1715, the French East India Company, responsible for the management of the island until 1767, organised the growing of coffee, which required a large workforce. A slave-trading company was set up: with slaves of European and Madagascan origin, alongside the black slaves brought in from Africa. Some of these, the 'Runaways', managed to escape and sought refuge in the uplands, so as to escape the control of the slave-owners.

The Intendant, Pierre Poivre, played a major role in the diversification of the agricultural resources by introducing new spice varieties such as clove and nutmeg which contributed to the wealth of the colony: the islands of the Indian Ocean, including the neighbouring Île de France (modern-day Mauritius) contributed to the power and wealth of the Kingdom of France.

Reunion Island assumed its current name in 1793, in reference to the joining together (French =  réunion) of the General Assembly of the Marseilles Fédérés and the Paris National Guard on the occasion of the march on the Tuileries Palace the previous year: the revolutionaries thus erasing the memory of the monarchy. In 1806, under the rule of the Empire, it assumed the name of Bonaparte, before passing under British rule in 1810 and then given back to the French under the Treaty of Paris (1814) when it once gain assumed the name Bourbon Island. In 1848, it once again became Reunion Island.

Slavery, having been abolished by the National Convention in 1794, would, however, remain in place until 20 December 1848, a day of public commemoration on Reunion Island (Fet' Caf'). Cane-cutters were to arrive on the island: hired workers from Southern India. During the 19th century, immigrants from Gujrat (Indian Muslims) and China settled in Reunion. The island, which became a French Department in 1946, is gradually becoming modernised; beginning in the 1960s, migrants from mainland France have begun to settle there in increasing number. In the 1970s, the French Department of the Indian Ocean began to attract Comorians, as well as Mahorians.

These various components of the population are diverse: Today Reunion boasts not one, but thousands of multi-ethnic faces, a reflection of the vast diversity, even if, depending on their origin, each of these people consider themselves to be either... a "cafre" (descendant of the black or Madagascan slaves); a "zarabe" (descendant of the Muslim immigrants from India); a "malbar" (descendant of the hired Indian workers), Creole or Chinese. A "yab" (or 'ti Blanc des Hauts' / White from the Hills), is one of the descendants of the more modest colonists driven out to the island's hills in the second half of the 19th century. With regard to the tourist, he will be certain to hear himself referred to as "zorey": as you have to listen carefully (zorey is derived from the French word 'oreille' meaning ear) to familiarise yourself with the Creole! However, whether you are visiting as a family, for a romantic holiday or with friends, you will leave Reunion Island with the reassuring certainty in your heart that, in an area spanning 2512 km², almost one million people of such diverse origin, religion, history and memory have succeeded in creating a tolerant society: a lesson for the rest of the world !